What Content Consumption Actually Means for Gen Z

Catherine Both, Editor

“The tiniest event can tear a hole in the grey curtain of reaction which has marked the horizons of possibility under capitalist realism. From a situation in which nothing can happen, suddenly anything is possible again.” — Mark Fisher

After a year of enduring various quarantine measures, forest fires, and national elections, my sense of reality is overstimulated. What is more overstimulating to me is the fact that most young people portray their political activism through social media. Most young internet users can agree that algorithmic recommendation for polarizing topics causes a division between young people. But what the media doesn’t cover, instead, is the drivers that cause people to seek our political content and ideas.

During the pandemic, Generation Z began to seek political refuge inside of social media. Teenagers unknowingly started to immerse themselves into micro niches, specifically on the most downloaded app of 2020, Tik Tok. Gen Z political movements consist mainly of virtue signaling, and digital activism that often fails systemically for those who actually want to influence change. It’s safe to say that the Gen-Zers are collectivist, nihilistic, and interested in identity play while the millennial online presence is individualist, entrepreneurial, and focused on a personal brand.

 Gen Z is far from being the most conservative generation, but our political opinions are vastly more polarized than any other generation before. RISD professor, Joshua Citarella writes, “online activity suggests that many in this age cohort do hold conservative values, or at least enjoy the perspective of a conservative position within our current media landscape.” But it must be noted that Gen Z also includes a rapidly growing progressive movement. Across all spheres of American society, moderates are failing to gain traction with younger generations. As fewer people are buying into mainstream ideas, alternative narratives have begun to flourish and citizens move further toward extremes of the political spectrum. 

Millennials, and Gen Z after them, adopted irony as a coping mechanism. Irony allowed us to continue life under late capitalism while psychologically sheltering ourselves from the demoralizing and harsh reality. Irony as culture became: “The band I like will inevitably sell out, so I might as well buy-in early.” Irony as politics became: “The movement will inevitably be corrupted, so I might as well side with capital.” Ultimately, it was acceptable that a project failed because irony allowed us to maintain the plausible deniability that we “never really liked it to begin with.” Why resist, if alternatives are impossible?

In the fall of 2018, I, like most passive observers, believed that the mass appeal of edgy trolling had come to an end. I was therefore surprised to see a style qualitatively similar to the early-2016 use of Pepe emerge on TikTok. TikTok trolling culture is distinctly different from the troll culture of 4chan. TikTok troll content is produced for a wide and nondescript online audience while 4chan trolls primarily use misanthropic in-jokes which signal back to their own niche community. While TikTok’s troll content is offensive and outrageous, it does not, thus far, resemble the targeted harassment campaigns of the Alt-right. TikTok trolls are mad at the world and criticize the abstract phantom of “libtards” but they do not intend to cause suffering for specific individuals. A public video making fun of someone is acceptable but a barrage of private messages is not. This distinction is important because it reveals an underlying difference in the individual motivations for these two groups and will impact effective policy prescriptions.

A youth movement kickstarted on the Gen Z dominated field of social media signaling away from stereotypical liberalism is significant because it reveals the center establishment’s lack of a real vision for the future. Under the mantra of demographic change (an ever increasing population of young people and growing racial diversity), liberal Democrats have assumed they can wait out the inevitable victory over aging white conservatives. This faulty assumption has prevented much of the liberal Left from considering the true appeal of their message. Failure to present a compelling political option will lose increasing numbers of young people to nihilism, and ultimately fascism.